Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

She Plied a Needle - Was Your Ancestor a Seamstress?

If you enjoy this article, why not follow me for more creative approaches to family history?

Our female ancestors of all classes probably left their mark more readily with a needle than with a pen. As paintings tell us, many middle and upper-class women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sewed for decorative purposes and amusement; some lower down the social scale, made and darned clothes for their own families. But a huge number of those who plied needles in the past did so to earn a living -  and a hard one at that. Women first came into the needle trades in large numbers during the Napoleonic Wars (1805-1815) when they were employed to stitch sails and military uniforms. They were considered cheaper, more dextrous and less prone to ‘combination’ (i.e. early attempts at unionisation) than men. Soon their input was in demand in other sectors. 

This woodcut shows a seamstress making alterations to the waist of an elaborate dress, probably 1870s. Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

As the nineteenth century progressed, there was a huge increase in the market for cheap, fashionable clothing. The reasons for this were numerous: new machinery was producing more abundant and cheaper materials (especially cotton), more people were being paid their wages in cash which meant that they could exercise more choice over what they spent them on and many chose clothing; and improved communications (particularly railways) meant that fashions could be disseminated more quickly and more cheaply.

Look carefully at how the occupations of your female ancestors are described in the censuses. Many different terms were used for needlewoman including: needle-workers, sewers, tailors, clothiers, milliners, dressmakers, garment makers, and seamstresses (as well as its other spelling sempstresses). Many women were also categorised under more specialised occupation titles according to what they actually made. These included hosiery manufacturers, staymakers, garter-makers, mantua makers, shirt-makers, hat sewers, glovers, and boot and shoe stitchers, and bookbinders (who stitched and folded the pages of books). There were also a number of related ‘needle trades’ such as button and hook and eye carding, umbrella covering, and sackwork. Some of the terms used on the census are delightfully evocative of the rich and varied tastes of the age. In 1881, for example, 19-year old Helen Bates, from Marylebone, was described as a ‘satin stitch embroideress,’ and there are plenty of ‘gold embroideresses’ and ‘straw bonnet sewers.’ In the same census nearly 5,000 women are accorded the occupation ‘sewing machinist.’

When viewing the censuses, you may find your needle-working ancestors far from home and participating in some unlikely living arrangements. This is because it was common for girls from the provinces to spend some time in big cities, especially London, learning the dressmaking trade. In the 1860s and 1870s, Frederick Isaacson ran a dressmaking emporium (known as Madame Elise’s) in Westminster. The 1861 census shows 49 girls (mostly between 16 and 25 years of age), as well as the Isaacson family and a number of other servants, living together. The girls – all described in the census as ‘dressmakers’ and ‘milliners’ – came from as far afield as Ireland, Frankfurt, France, Preston and Wales.

There were two types of women needle-workers: those who worked in ‘honourable’ private dressmaking establishments (of varying degrees of refinement), and those who worked as sweated outworkers (usually at home). In the first category were the daughters of professional, clerical or trading families as well as the daughters of farmers, tradesmen and artisans. Needlework offered these women skilled work and business opportunities.  At the bottom end of the scale were women of a much lower order who had fallen on hard times and were desperate simply to put bread in the mouths of their children. Some worked for roguish employers in large sweatshops where pay and conditions were poor and the subject of much humanitarian concern. In the second category were the impoverished seamstresses who worked from home. Warehouses might distribute material to ‘mistresses’ or agents who would then apportion smaller amounts to individual home-workers. For women, needlework was an activity – like childminding, charring, washing, accommodating lodgers or selling food from their back kitchens – that could be fitted in and around other domestic duties. Any poor quality clothing made by workers at home was referred to rather uncharitably as ‘slopwork.’

From the mid nineteenth-century onwards, better printing techniques, cheaper paper and improved literacy meant that there were more women’s magazines catering for the desire for fashionable clothing. Here a popular paper shows ‘the new long cloaks’ evidently in vogue in October 1888.
The Girl’s Own Paper, October 27th 1888

Home-based needlework actually increased rather than decreased during the Industrial Revolution. Indeed some firms used more and more out-workers as factory and workshop regulations became more stringent. Different parts of the country specialised in different sorts of needlework. Ayrshire home-workers favoured ‘whitework’ – embroidery in white thread onto white cloth for christening robes, table cloths and underwear; Coventry was known for silk ribbon production; in Northampton, domestic stitching serviced the boot and shoe industry; London had the largest women’s garment-making sector; and the South-West made gloves.

Conditions of Work

Many Victorian do-gooders were appalled at the conditions in which seamstresses lived and worked. A Report by Dugard Grainger for the Childrens’ Commission in 1843 painted a bleak picture of seamstressing. He found found that needlewomen who lived on the business premises worked very long hours (18 hours a day was not unheard of) and slept in crowded and badly ventilated rooms.  Many needlewomen suffered from respiratory, digestive and rheumatic disorders. Eye complaints were caused by the fact that much of the work was carried out before daybreak and after nightfall, and particularly affected those who worked with black mourning material. There were tales of girls throwing whisky into their eyes to keep themselves awake. Women earned far less than men doing comparable jobs in the tailoring trade. Whilst residential needle-workers were paid on a par with domestic servants (anything from £12 - £30 per annum depending on skill), the fact that they needed to be dressed smartly for presentation to customers often meant that employers kept back part of their wages to cover clothing.

Work in the needlework trades was exceptionally arduous in the two fashion ‘Seasons’ (April until July or August, and October to December). During the in-between times (known as ‘the slacks’), girls could find themselves without work, or at least forced to take holidays even if they had nowhere to go. The Girl’s Own Paper, Vol IX, No 415, December 10th, 1887

Homeworkers were at the mercy of the mistresses or agents who dealt out the work and took a cut – often a generous one  -  for themselves. Middle-class philanthropists recounted horrendous stories of needlewomen sleeping under the clothes they were making because they couldn’t afford proper blankets. As the social investigator Henry Mayhew noted, many needlewomen in London particularly were so desperate that they turned to prostitution. Few women are actually recorded as ‘prostitutes’ on the nineteenth-century censuses but it is worth remembering that where ‘needlework’ is entered as an occupation, it may hide other, less savoury, sources of income.

 On the 1881 census Jane Bird (aged 20) and her older sister Mary (aged 29) both from Hesketh in Cumberland were employed by a Mrs Agnes Wharton, in Westminster. Jane was an ‘apprentice,’ whilst Mary had obviously been promoted to the position of ‘assistant.’ Dressmaker’s apprentices at around this time paid an annual premium to their employers of between £10-£50 to cover their living costs. Girls were usually bound at the age of fourteen or fifteen and the apprenticeship lasted for two or three years.

If the needlewoman in your family disappears from the records at around the time of the 1851 census, it’s just possible that this is because she has left the country. Perceived as a problem in a society that had far more unmarried females than males in its population, the needlewoman was – briefly - high on the list for assisted emigration in the 1850s. Sidney Herbert, M.P. for South Wiltshire, suggested the removal of designated groups of needlewomen to Australia. Between 1850 and 1852 about 700 needlewomen benefited from assisted emigrations on ships named Stately, Beulah, The City of Manchester, and The Fortitude. The exercise was not, however, considered to be a success. There were reports of quarrels, bad language, insubordination and immorality on board ship. But the mission really failed because the thinking about what the colonies really needed changed. From 1853 onwards, emigration societies focussed on sending educated and robust middle-class women rather than delicate seamstresses of dubious social background to the outposts of Empire.
A number of associations and societies were eventually set up to improve the lot of the needlewoman. They include, The Association for the Aid and Benefit of Dressmakers and Milliners founded in 1843. This aimed to persuade the principal dressmaking establishments to limit working hours to twelve a day and to abolish Sunday work. It also set up and maintained a registry for freelance day-workers, by which it hoped to ensure that residential needlewomen were not overburdened at the busiest times of the year. The Society for the Relief of Distressed Needlewomen (set up in 1847) aimed to introduce fairer wages into the slop trade. Workhouse institutions and government contractors who produced their own garments were requested to adopt standard prices so that they did not undercut the prices charged by other needlewoman. The Milliner’s and Dressmaker’s Provident and Benevolent Institution (founded in 1849) offered needlewomen free medical advice and set up a fund to help needlewomen in their old age and at times of misfortune. There were also a number of regional associations set up to help needle-workers in times of particular distress. The records of the Liverpool Society for the Relief of Sick or Distressed Needlewomen 1858-1941 (including weekly visitors committee minutes, distribution and account books), are available at the Merseyside Record Office. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, these philanthropic initiatives were joined by needle-working co-operatives in which women began, at last, to fight for their own rights. One of these was The Society of Dressmakers, Milliners and Mantlemakers (1875). In time statutory protection for workers of both sexes in the sweated industries was brought in, but for many of our lowly seamstress ancestors, it was too little, too late.

 A Singer Sewing Machine, 1853: in the 1881 census nearly 5,000 women are accorded the occupation ‘sewing machinist’ (sewing machines were first patented in 1846 but were not in general use until the 1860s). Frederick L. Lewton, The Servant in the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine, Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institute, 1929, Washington Government Printing Office, 1930.
Extra Reading
Beth Harris, Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century, Ashgate, 2005 ISBN: 0745608719
Lynn M. Alexander, Women, Work and Representation: Needlewomen in Victorian Art and Literature. Ohio UP, 2003. ISBN: 0821414933

Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, London: The Women’s Press, 1984.

Christine Walkley, The Ghost in the looking Glass: The Victorian Sempstress, London: Peter Owen, 1981.

Duncan Bythell, The Sweated Trades: Outwork in Nineteenth-Century Britain, London: Batsford Academic, 1978.

Margaret Stewart and Leslie Hunter, The Needle is Threaded: The History of an Industry, Heinemann/Newman Neame, 1964

Dugald Grainger, ‘Report on the Manufactures and Trades of Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Birmingham and London.’ Children’s Employment Commission, Vol X, 1843.

H. E. Lord and J. E. White, ‘Report on the Manufacture and Wearing of Apparel, Part 1. On Dressmakers, Mantle-Makers and Milliners.’ Children’s Employment Commission, Vol XIV, 1864.

Mayhew. Henry, ‘Prostitution Among Needlewomen’  (1849) in The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from The Morning Chronicle, ed. Thompson. E.P. and  Yeo, E. Pantheon, 1971. ISBN: 0394468619 p.121

This article first appeared in Discover Your Ancestors Bookazine, 2016

Click here for Discover Your Ancestors Periodical and Bookazine

Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine (; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine ( The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books ( and The History Press ( 

Click to browse and buy Replica Suffragette Memorabilia Including Jewellery

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit:

#ancestors #ancestryhour #genealogy #familytree #familyhistory #wdytya #seamstresses #sempstresses #needlewoman #needlewomen #sewing #history #ruthasymes #familyhistorybooks

No comments:

Post a comment